America as Utopia

A city upon a hill, a human-divine paradise, a light unto the nations-the American Religion


America is unique among nations of Western society in its utopia-touched origins. When John Winthrop and his band of Puritans arrived in Massachusetts they brought with them a firm desire to create a society of Biblical purity. "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us." This injunction from St. Matthew (5:14) was taken by Winthrop and his fellow Pilgrims as the foundation of the new nation they intended to create. As Perry Miller has pointed out in his historic essay "Errand in the Wilderness," the first spiritual crisis of the New World took place when these hardy and devout Puritans discovered, first, that the eyes of all people were not on them and second, that as the years passed, they had fallen morally from the sacred hill.

The utopian passion continued, however, and much of the intellectual history of the 17th century reflects the passion and also preoccupation with the nature and conditions of utopian being—of wickedness to be overcome and virtue to be attained. Within a few decades an important change took place. When they arrived the Puritans had their minds on a Christian city. But soon the protagonist of the divine epic could be seen subtly changing from the Puritan-Christian to the American. As Ernest Tuveson has written in his illuminating Redeemer Nation: The Idea of Americas Redeemer Role:

"When Protestant millennialist theory was formed, logically there came with it a need to find a new chosen nation, or nations. If history is theodicy, if redemption is historical as well as individual.…there must be children of light and children of darkness geographically, and the City of God and the City of the World should be susceptible of being designated on maps."

From the time of the Great Awakening of the 1730s in America, with Jonathan Edwards one of the principal figures involved, Christianity and Americanism would interpenetrate, with the fervor and even the liturgy of the former often infused into treatments of the 13 colonies, not least in their increasingly hated role of being subject to the British Crown. America was by now the "city upon a hill" in the eyes of a constantly enlarging number of pre-Revolutionary Americans. It is doubtful that a single American president, down to and including Ronald Reagan, has failed in one speech or another to invoke the Matthew image in support of America the Redeemer.

It was in this light of redemption that the American jeremiad was born. This distinctive form of literature came first into existence in Europe, an element of the Protestant Reformation. But it reached its greatest force and intensity in America, first through Puritan use, then more widely, American. Sacvan Bercovitch, in The American Jeremiad, has gone to the heart of this literary form:

"The American jeremiad was a ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal, public to private identity, the shifting 'signs of the times' to certain traditional metaphors, themes, and symbols. To argue (as I do) that the jeremiad has played a major role in fashioning the myth of America is to define it at once in literary and historical terms. Myth may clothe history as fiction, but it persuades in proportion to its capacity to help men act in history."

In the beginning the American jeremiad was little more than the sermon, but by the early 18th century its essence could be found in secular as well as religious contexts, in passionate support of America the Beautiful as well as Christ. Tirelessly the writers of jeremiads told the story of America, the "city upon a hill," the land of all the hopes and dreams which had been blunted and even destroyed in the Old World.

But with equal ardor the jeremiadists told what was wrong with America in its present hour, told of its secret recesses of wickedness, of evils which had somehow accumulated in the course of America's brief history. And finally, transcendingly, the jeremiad laid out a program of action and reform by which America could recover the innocence that had become lost or tarnished. In each of these thrusts, there lay the conviction that America had, through some combination of divine and historical reasons, become the conscience of the world, at once model and actor.

Those historians who have tried to demonstrate that the American Revolution was a strictly "controlled," "finite," and "contained" revolution, with little if any ecstasy about it, simply haven't read the exultations and the promises of most of the men who carried the Revolution through to success. For Tom Paine, Samuel Adams, and also John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, America of the Revolution was in truth "a city upon a hill" and, moreover, one with the "eyes of all people" upon it. They saw the flames of the American Revolution spreading to South America and Europe and Asia, to all places in due time where people suffered from ignorance, illiteracy, superstition, and tyranny.

In newspaper, sermon, oration, pamphlet, historical study, novel, and state decree, the American jeremiad flourished in the decades following the Revolution, flourished indeed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. By virtue of the jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch writes, "American millennialism pervaded the entire spectrum of social thought. Educators planned for a 'spiritual revolution' that would bring humanity to perfection. Political and moral performers advertised their programs as the 'revolutionary consummation of God's plan.' Prominent thinkers urged that technology would 'revolutionize the land' into becoming a 'human-divine paradise'.…Labor leaders found in the Revolution a 'post-millennial justification for trade unionism.'"

The idea of progress was of course a cardinal premise, or corollary, of American utopianism. This idea, with historic roots in both Greek rationalism and Christian millennialism, was almost perfectly forged for American use. That mankind had progressed in the past, was now progressing, and would continue to progress—spiritually, morally, and socially, as well as economically and politically—was no more doubted by Adams and Jefferson than by such Europeans as Condorcet and Godwin. And, thought the Founding Fathers, America was in the vanguard of this human epic of progress.

Americans warmed to any European visitor who flattered them, as Tocqueville did, at least in the first part of his Democracy in America, and tried to overlook the occasional tourist like Dickens who was somewhat less impressed. As H.L. Mencken has recorded in his American Language, the 19th century was an age of unrivaled profusion of homely but telling maxims and other colloquialisms bespeaking an America already astride the world. The philosopher-historian John W. Draper filled Cooper Union night after night with his solemn and lengthy disquisitions on the foundations of American progress in natural law, a progress that was "as completely under the control of natural law as is the bodily growth of an individual." The American utopia was, in sum, a part of the natural provisions of cosmic physics.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, so often doubtful about this or that element of Americana, was as confident as any other prophet of the essential correctness of the American course of history. "Who does not prefer the age of steel, of gold, of coal, petroleum, cotton, steam" to the falsely lauded ages of stone, bronze, and iron in the past? In 1893 Chicago's great Columbian Exhibition brought 27 million visitors to its 600 acres of technological marvels. If the first theme was world progress, a second theme of American progress and leadership in the world was easy to identify.

It is sometimes forgotten that Henry George's classic Progress and Poverty, justly famous for its brilliantly conceived single tax, on land, had its origins, by the author's own acknowledgement, not in musings upon poverty but upon progress. Everything, with but one exception, he believed, bespoke the fulfilled progress of mankind in his day. This one exception was the persistence of poverty. To repair poverty—and the single tax would effect this—was to add the final step to a then-complete stairway to perfection, to utopia. "Words fail the thought: It is the Golden Age of which poets have sung and the high-raised seers have told in metaphor.…It is the culmination of Christianity—the City of God on earth.…It is the reign of the Prince of Peace."

Of course, as is doubtless inevitable, minds equally devout in their faith in the American Religion could divide bitterly whether a given act by the nation was in accord or grievous disaccord with the image of American nobility. Thus the war with Spain led such Americans as William James, Josiah Royce, and William Graham Sumner to denounce, in full jeremiadic tones, American imperialism—"earth hunger," as Sumner caustically dismissed it. But there were many others, probably a majority, to hail American aggression upon Spain as a mighty blow for America the Utopia, America the Redeemer, ever concerned with the plight of peoples still unacquainted with American political perfection.

The American Religion has been a two-edged sword in our history. It has manifestly provided much of the psychological and ethical motivations that have gone into the populating and reclaiming of a vast continent. The moral and social elements that all students of capitalism, starting with Max Weber, have found to be crucial in economic growth and all that it contains and implies are the very stuff of the American Creed. Individual self-reliance, individual achievement, material prosperity, an eye to the future as well as the present, a preference for the private to the public sector as the haven of those in need, and the values of the family, church, and local community—these are all canons, as it were, of the American Religion.

But the American Religion has fostered another kind of dedication: that of conveying moral righteousness to the world. We see this in so much of our foreign policy.

It was Woodrow Wilson who saturated American policy toward the world with piety and moralism that virtually took the world by storm. From childhood he knew the clutch of Calvinist moral fervor. By the time he reached college his native Calvinism had begun to evolve into an evangelical Americanism. Tirelessly he cited St. Matthew's injunction, and incessantly he was at work on the actual creation, three centuries later, of the blessed city. He worked first for a "Princeton in the Nation's Service," in the process alienating half his students, faculty, and trustees; those who somehow couldn't assimilate his fervent preaching in support of extirpating the eating clubs and siting the graduate school, with each mission declared vital to all humanity.

Having failed at Princeton, Wilson betook himself, after a short preparatory stint as governor of New Jersey, to the presidency. He didn't lack for loyalists and enthusiasts. Indeed, he doesn't to this day. Crowded and noisy halls quiet instantly at a politician's invocation of Saint Woodrow—who showed the Way to a nation and world that have even yet failed to grasp it. Wilson made neutrality a sacred part of the American Religion during the first two years of the Great War. No city upon a hill should besmirch itself in a brawl of imperialists—Britain and France being just as venal as Germany. But having been reelected in 1916 precisely because "he kept us out of war," he had yet another divine afflatus, this one being the moral duty of America to enter the war, join in victory, and then from such a lofty vantage point show the world of nations how to avoid war in the future and to plant properly the seeds of democracy.

This, Wilson believed, as had many a predecessor in American government—although none with such power as he possessed—was America's destiny. The details of his chosen mission were revealed in the famous Fourteen Points on which he had had scribes and scholars secretly at work even before reelection. To the undoubted consternation of war-exhausted leaders such as Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Churchill, who had seen millions of Europe's young men slaughtered, mutilated, and crippled, Wilson made it clear that as the price of American entry into the war, America would govern the peace. The story of Wilson's struggles with his allies in Europe, with members of the Democratic as well as Republican party at home, indeed with lifelong friends and intimates, has been too often told to warrant treatment here. Suffice it to say that with Wilson the American Religion became cosmic.

Two decades later Franklin D. Roosevelt repeated the mission of his adored Saint Woodrow. He too went through the prescribed ritual of, first, neutrality in the name of American virtue, then prescription of the true issues of the war, in his Four Freedoms address, then the Atlantic Charter. Like the Fourteen Points, the Charter would endow war with the moral aim of liberating peoples, of repudiating aggression of nations once and for all, along with war of any kind, and making certain that governments throughout the world would be linked in a mighty United Nations under which they could enjoy for the first time in their histories the blessings of an American-style democracy.

Roosevelt's courtship of Stalin throughout the war, once America entered it, had the sole purpose of trying to win Stalin's full cooperation after the war in policing the world under the aegis of the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations. Roosevelt, again precisely like Wilson, spurned the governments of Britain, France, and indeed of all countries that had ever been engaged in imperialism; spurned them, that is, as potential leaders of world government.

In Roosevelt's view—a view helped a great deal by his man Harry Hopkins, ever vigilant to Soviet interest and welfare—Stalin was precisely the kind of world leader Roosevelt could work with after the war against Nazi Germany was won. After all, the Soviets had (yet) no record of imperialism, and despite such misfortunes as the liquidation of the peasantry, the purges, and the 1939 pact with Hitler, they were clearly on the way to becoming a nation like the United States. So FDR thought to the very end of his life, and by so thinking brought the Cold War upon America, just as Neville Chamberlain had effectively brought the second great European war of the century upon his country by exhibiting the same credulous faith in Hitler that Roosevelt soon would in Stalin.

There are a great many peculiarities of modern American history that are rooted squarely in the tradition of utopianism that the American Faith has nurtured for three centuries. Our relative imperviousness to socialism is one of them. The German historian of capitalism, Werner Sombart, was only one of a number of perceptive Europeans who, looking at American exceptionalism in this respect, decided that it was the widespread feeling among American workers that something equivalent to a socialist paradise had already been achieved that immunized them to the appeal of European socialist gospel. Every working man a capitalist, every capitalist a working man at heart: this was a part of the American Religion.

One need only scan the speeches of the pioneering industrialists—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, and others—to discover quickly that they had all of the European socialist's contempt and fierce opposition to class inequalities and other hereditary obstacles to the freest possible rise of the common man. But they had something the European socialist didn't have: conviction that the good society could and would be achieved by individual freedom rather than collective action.

Consider American reaction to the tides of immigrants that began to roll over the American continent after the Civil War, most of them from eastern Europe and Asia. Two responses, both originating in the American Religion, were to be seen on the part of those who were or considered themselves native Americans.

The first was one of eschewal and segregation. The American city upon a hill was threatened with contamination by those of alien extraction. Fear of racial and ethnic contamination was real in America at the turn of the century. Eugenics societies sprang up, their aim that of achieving a public policy of some kind that would prevent intermarriage of different and unequal racial types. Not until the 1930s did the eugenics craze really subside in this country.

But side by side with repugnance for the alien intruder into paradise was to be found an opposite reaction, one also part and parcel of the American Religion: that of belief in the melting pot, of sincere conviction that the American house is one of many mansions. We take nothing away from the hardihood and native ambition of the millions of immigrants who made their way to this country—who still do, legally and illegally—when we observe the works of Americans, and also of newly arrived but settled immigrants, in easing the transition from rootlessness to citizenship in America.

Only a patriotism that was religious at its core could have awakened the loyalties so quickly of the ranks of Russians, Poles, Latvians, and many others from eastern Europe. We need only go back to the letters they wrote to their European kinsmen and neighbors, to letters they wrote to the various newspapers of their own languages that sprang up quickly, to the ease with which they moved into politics, and, at higher levels of success and literary zeal, to the books by the Carnegies and Boks that attracted the attention of native as well as foreign-born Americans. In all of these, America is plainly more than a nation; it is a religion.

Even more remarkable is the awakening of American consciousness among blacks, so many of whom had themselves lived in slavery. Deeply Christian from the beginning, the transition to American-Christian in faith and loyalty was widespread. No one reading Booker T. Washington today can doubt the authenticity of his celebration of American freedom and opportunity.

Even the Great Depression didn't appreciably dampen enthusiasm for the American Faith. Studies at the time and later revealed the persistence of American faith in progress, in the basic fairness of life, in the superiority of American acumen to that of foreign nations, and in the value of individual effort. I do not have to be reminded of the plethora of reconstructive and outrightly utopian ideas in that decade, ranging from Social Credit to Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California and Dr. Townsend's Thirty Dollars Every Thursday. But to a remarkable degree all of these (I am of course specifically excluding Marxist organizations and missions) were clearly within the American idiom—as much so as reform movements to end bossism in politics; to establish the initiative, referendum, and recall; and to supplement private enterprise with something like the national park system.

It must not be forgotten that correction and improvement of the city upon a hill—which everyone recognized had a tendency to fall occasionally in the embraces of Sodom and Gomorrah—were as vital in the American Religion as was constitutive faith in the overriding holiness of the city. Hence the undimmed popularity of the jeremiad through the life of the Republic. It has today, as it had in Cotton Mather's time, the twofold function of celebrating the American Way and also castigating it for its continuing imperfections. Rare the American who, while declaiming of America the Beautiful, doesn't have in the back of his mind a few proposed laws and a constitutional amendment or two.

It is the religious element in our patriotism that no doubt accounts for the high intensity and shrillness of our reactions to political maldoers. As we know, Europeans, generally more sophisticated than Americans in political affairs, could only look on in mingled astonishment and laughter at our Watergate. That event was a very awakening for journalists, who hadn't found opportunity for such battles with Satan since World War I and its rape-obsessed, child mutilating, slavering Huns in German uniform.

What of the future? Will the American Religion, with its amalgam of diverse impulses and incentives, prosper in the decades ahead? There are reasons for doubting that it will.

There is first the changing attitude toward the past—or rather to those elements of the present that are our signposts to the past. What T.S. Eliot called "disowning the past" is today a national mission, or so it would seem, living as we do in the snow candy clouds of futurism that fill the sky so seductively. A distinguished historian, J.H. Plumb, has actually called for "the death of the past," seeing in it little besides superstition and tyranny. But like it or not, the past is precious; indeed, as Orwell demonstrated in Nineteen Eighty-Four, indispensable so far as the preservation of freedom is concerned.

There is also the waning faith in economic growth, not only in America but in the West as a whole. Pursuits such as environmentalism, women's liberation, civil rights of every description, and health-mania have crowded out many of the interests that once had nowhere else to go but to the economic gospel of work and efficiency. There is nothing so calculated to destroy political freedom in the long run as is the current sneering attitude among intellectuals toward the necessary engines of economic progress—factories, machines, overalls, et al.

Add to these the all too evident decline in the sense of and respect for knowledge—as compared with mere information of the sort the newsweeklies dispense automatically, and with the diversion to which most of television consecrates itself, and the vast array of spectator and consumer activities that fill time but not mind and character. Merely glance at some randomly selected college catalogs of courses: under the rubric of history we are more than likely to find a half-dozen courses on feminine mystique, black literature, the unemployed, the indigent, and alienation in America for every straightforward course on the American nation as a whole. The view is hardly better when we turn to philosophy. Gone are the classic courses in ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of history; in their places are consecratedly deconstructionist exercises in linguistic analysis and hermeneutics.

Nor can we overlook the wave of subjectivism that began to roll over the American mind shortly after World War II. It is manifest at all social levels in American society and is identifiable as narcissism, egocentricity, the transmeditational, and an almost infinite variety of philosophies and strategies of psychotherapy. The hallmark of the subjective is the sovereign place accorded individual consciousness and correctively the diminished—if not exorcised—status of the outer world.

There is finally the immense role today played by the evangelicals and fundamentalists. There have been awakenings of Christianity throughout American history; as we have seen, the creed of Americanism is inseparable in origin from these spasmodic religious bursts. But until the present time, these have been largely self-contained; they have not made the state their cherished prize. That forbearance is seemingly gone at the present time, as the highly political presences of Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell suggest. In their televised glory, these evangelists brazenly infuse the religious with the political and make of politics a medieval-style crusade against the infidel, who is of course everywhere, from the kindergarten to the halls of Congress.

Only with the greatest difficulty could any of the Founders breathe in today's America, given its mists of boredom, self-preoccupation, the epicene, the supernatural, and epidemic moralism. The Soviet Union is not as immediate a threat to American liberty as are these world-denying seizures of the public mind. We shall do well if we enter the third millennium with the pillars of reason, individualism, and representative democracy still intact, and thus perhaps do again what the Framers did so magnificently 200 years ago.

Robert Nisbet's most recent book is Conservatism: Dream and Reality.